What We’re Reading: George Johnson

October, 21 2014

Here, we share what Moment editors are reading and watching, from news to novels. Up this week is senior editor George Johnson, who recently explored the Jewish origins of the evil eye for our September/October issue. Johnson has been immersed in the literature and history of World War I of late, in honor of its 100th anniversary. 

GeorgeJohnsonLawrence in Arabia (not of Arabia), by Scott Anderson. This history of the World War I takes an unusual perspective: the war for the Ottoman Empire and the unexpected roles four intelligence agents played in it. T.E. Lawrence is the young British officer who formed his own Arab armies to defeat the Turks; Kurt Prüfer is a German agent who schemed to bring the Arabs to the German side; William Yale is an American oilman-turned US military intelligence liaison; and Aaron Aaronsohn is a Palestinian-Jewish agronomist who organized the NILI spy-ring in Palestine to work on behalf of Britain and the Allies. Clearly, the pivotal figure is Lawrence, and he gets most of the attention. Lawrence’s transformation from a brilliant but seemingly geeky analyst and strategist to ruthless commander and killer and the resulting PTSD symptoms in his relatively short post-war life, is vividly told. After all his daring, heroic and even reckless battlefield feats and his post-war celebrity, Lawrence ironically dies a recluse in a prosaic motorcycle accident, when he swerves to avoid two boys on bicycles.

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis. This highly sympathetic biography of Begin gave me a much more rounded appreciation of Begin, the man and the leader. It will undoubtedly be greeted with skepticism by those who remember Begin as David Ben Gurion’s primary opposition for many years, and his involvement in the Irgun, which carried out the deadly bombing of the King David Hotel in July 1946 and other attacks on the British. But, Gordis argues, there would be no Jewish State without Begin’s insistence that Jews needed to rely on their own strength, military and otherwise, to obtain and preserve their State. His description of the interactions between Begin and David Ben Gurion alone make this book worth reading. I did note one error, however. I happened to be a member of the public in Lafayette Square witnessing the March 1979 signing of the agreement between Sadat and Begin following the Camp David accord, which took place on the north lawn of the White House. Gordis reports that it was on the south lawn.

Rav Kook, A Mystic in a Time of Revolution, by Yehuda Mirsky. Avraham Yitzhak Kook became the first chief rabbi of Israel in 1921. Mirsky tells how he got there, and interweaves Kook’s spiritual life and writings with accounts of the down-to-earth, actually nasty, rabbinic politics of Palestine. I was most interested in Kook’s role in legitimizing the religious-historical role of the secular halutzim-pioneers, which caused so much conflict with the other religious leaders in pre-State Palestine. The very fact that Kook was able to be at once in mystical communication with the Almighty and engaged in the political infighting that re-creating a new Jewish civilization required makes him a unique figure in modern times. It’s a little heavy with quotes from Kook’s writings, and I would have loved to hear more about his interactions with the ordinary Jewish settler, but it’s a good read.

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